UPPER MANHATTAN — Rep. Charlie Rangel faced the fight of his political life this primary season and emerged victorious Tuesday night, beating State Sen. Adriano Espaillat and paving the way to a 22nd Congressional term.
With 84 percent of precincts reporting, Rangel had 45 percent of the vote compared to Espaillat's 39.8 percent. The race was expected to be tight, given the newly-drawn 13th Congressional District's Hispanic majority, Rangel's ailing health and recent censure by the House for ethics violations.
Still, a defiant Rangel had remained confident that he would win.
“I never really understood the qualifications of my opponents,” Rangel told supports gathered for a victory party at Sylvia's Also in Harlem, where he slammed the "hostile media" for suggesting there was any chance that he might lose.
"If they didn't think after 42 years I was the best qualified, I promise," he added, "after two years they'll have no doubt."
Also pulling off decisive wins Tuesday night were Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who beat out outspoken Councilman Charles Barron to win the party's nomination in the Brooklyn's 8th Congressional District.
In Queens’ 6th Congressional District, Flushing Assemblywoman Grace Meng could become the state's first Asian-American representative, after sweeping a contentious three-way battle against Assemblyman Rory Lancman and City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley to take over from retiring Rep. Gary Ackerman.
Voter turnout was low across the board, with just 15 percent of registered Democrats casting ballots even in the closely-watched 13th Congressional District race.
Rangel's win was a blow for Espaillat, a popular state senator, who had painted himself as the voice of the future in the district whose demographics have drastically changed over years, becoming increasingly Hispanic and increasingly white. He would have become the nation's first Dominican-American Congressman had he won.
"In many ways this candidacy was and is a true American story, fundamentally rooted in the American dream," Espaillat said Tuesday night, surrounded by family and supporters at the 809 Restaurant in Inwood in a speech conceding the loss.
"We will not relinquish that dream," he said. "We will not be deterred from that dream. We will not step back from that dream. We will move forward and make sure that American dream is better for everybody."
Early returns had hinted that Espaillat might pull an upset. At Rangel headquarters, the mood turned to excitement and relief after the numbers turned the congressman's way.
"When I was elected in 1985 I thought I would follow the congressman but he has that Strom Thurmond thing going on," said former Gov. David Paterson at the victory bash, referring to the South Carolina senator who served until he was 100 years old.
"How can you say someone is too old to run for office and then go to senior centers and tell the people there you support them?" he asked. "It was mistakes like that that I thought I was the death knell for some of his opponents."
Rangel, 82, had faced bruising criticism from his challengers, who had accused him of overstaying his welcome after four decades in Washington.
Some voters said Rangel's recent ethics scandal tipped the scales in favor of Espaillat.
"Rangel got himself in a lot of trouble, and I don't admire him for that," said Leslie Zema, 64, a retired teacher from the neighborhood, who also noted Espaillat's strong record of service in upper Manhattan. "Rangel's ethics problems did him in for me."
Still, other voters said Rangel's many decades in Washington, D.C., made him the most equipped for the job.
"This community would not be what it is if not for Congressman Rangel. Everyone wants to live in Harlem now. Even President Clinton has an office here,” said Henry Singleton, 52, a health care workers union organizer who lives in West Harlem.
Judith Francis, 56, a housekeeper and Rangel supporter, said the media had erred by exaggerating the challenge posed by Espaillat.
"The media never support Rangel," said Francis. "It's better to stick with what you have. You never know what you might get."
Rangel's other top contender, Clinton aide Clyde Williams, who had stressed his Washington experience, emerged with 10 percent of the vote. Upper West Side businesswoman Joyce Johnson and former model and Rangel intern Craig Schley each received less than 5 percent.
Fellow incumbent Nydia Velazquez also easily won her primary against City Councilman Erik Dilan in the 6th Congressional District, which covers parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Lower East Side.
Manhattan lawyer Wendy Long also won the Republican nomination to take on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the Fall, beating out Rep. Bob Turner and Nassau County comptroller George Maragos with more than 50 percent of the vote.
With reporting by Fred Dreier